Diane Haithman contributes to Deadline’s TCA coverage.
A Billie Jean King documentary is an expected highlight of PBS’ upcoming American Masters season. So at today’s TCA, BJK herself, just shy of her 70th birthday (and flanked by American Masters series creator and EP Susan Lacy) was on the panel to talk about breaking barriers.
First, however, she was asked to talk about longtime sponsor Virginia Slims and her thoughts about the bizarre relationship of cigarettes to athletics. She admitted when she first found out about the relationship she said “You’ve got to be kidding” but then praised the Phillip Morris tobacco company (now Altria Group) as having “more integrity than many people I’ve worked with … probably the best sponsor in sports. But yes, it was difficult.”
The athlete also talked about the famous 1973 King-Riggs match with Bobby Riggs: “No, it wasn’t fun, she said. It was not fun. Maybe for you watching, not for me. I knew what this stood for.” King said that she felt it was necessary not only to play the match, but to win it.
“I knew what this stood for, it was very symbolic of the women’s movement,” King said. “Title 9 (equality amendment ) had just passed. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people” and not weaken that piece of legislation, she said. “Back in 1973 a woman could not even get a credit card without her husband co-signing.”
King said at the time Riggs told her the match was “about the money, honey,” but she felt the social significance, After he played Margaret (Court) and she lost badly, I had to play him. I didn’t have a choice.” Later she said that not only did she have to play—she had to win.
But King said that she maintained a deep respect for Riggs until his 1995 death. “The reason I beat him is I had total respect for him,” she said. She said she spoke to Riggs by phone the night before he died and he finally admitted: “I guess we really did make a difference, didn’t we?”